John Ross is sitting in a cornfield. At least, pretty close to it. Ross has hauled a chair, mic, guitar, and amp out into the field next to his Upstate New York home to play songs on camera among the cornstalks for a taping of KEXP At Home. It’s a fitting, memorable live stream and the latest in what’s turned into a very busy spring for the lead singer of Wild Pink.
I caught up with Ross via phone the day after he plugged in to play some of those stirring tracks off of February’s excellent A BILLION LITTLE LIGHTS—one of the finest rock records of the year. Like the live stream, everything transpiring virtually has cemented itself as the new normal as musicians and fans alike count the days (and count, and count) until live music, and a sense of normalcy, returns. “For…six months, eight months, I didn’t even really play music at all,” Ross says. “I just didn’t do any writing or play any music. I’ve been really enjoying that.”
Consider Ross refreshed and ready to go rather than rusty. As is to be expected when you’re as productive as Wild Pink, my conversation with the Florida-born singer also happens to take place not too long after the band released yet another new track, the ethereal “Ohio” off a forthcoming EP with singer-songwriter Samia. The 3 SONGS EP comes out June 25th on Royal Mountain Records, which is great news if you can’t get enough Wild Pink. Ross says he knew “right away” that “Ohio” would lead off the EP, and if you take the first track as a sign of things to come, the new trio of songs is going to add another layer of lush complexity to the band’s discography. Songs off the EP were first put to tape in late 2018, on the heels of their stellar record from that same year, the critically acclaimed YOLK IN THE FUR.
But let’s jump back to 2021. You’d also be remiss not to mention last month’s 6 COVER SONGS EP, which rounds up a bevvy of unique Wild Pink covers through the years (The Boss, Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen) into one fun, easy-listening compilation. The Carly Rae cover, for example, came from a 2018 tribute album to the pop star, while Wild Pink had previously covered Springsteen for a separate 2018 compilation. “I was just so excited to put them all together,” Ross said. “Things get lost in the sauce (with a big compilation).”
One imagines it’s got to be tough, at times, to sort through so much stellar material, as the band sticks hard and fast to its habit of releasing EPs to accompany full-length records. Again, this is great news if you love Wild Pink. It’s all made possible, though, by the fact that the band’s records, cover songs or originals, are a listening experience unto themselves, especially if you appreciate blissful, nuanced, guitar-driven rock.
A BILLION LITTLE LIGHTS is but the next great chapter for a band that keeps getting bigger and better. It’s their most complex album yet, bringing in more players and building off the groundwork Ross laid through the years (he handled most of the instrumentation himself on past releases). Mixing the record wrapped up last January, but initial demos were cut as early as spring 2018 before the record was put to tape back in fall 2019. The final product reflects that care and attention to detail (“Track Mud” was the first recorded track to end up on the record)
Repeat listens of the new record reveal subtle, beautiful moments, layered instrumentation from a cast of more than a dozen musicians, and clever lyrics that make you want to play its songs on a loop. To call it a gem is an understatement. “I knew from the start that I just wanted this record to sound really lush and full,” Ross said. “I decided early on that just having tons and tons of players would be a nice, organic way to have it sound really full.” And the LP clears that high bar quite nicely, with contributions from Ratboys’ Julia Steiner and some seriously cool guitar playing from steel guitarist Mike “Slo Mo” Brenner, a staple of Wild Pink live shows. The end result is a record that, like YOLK IN THE FUR, puts Wild Pink in a category all its own as far as modern rock bands are concerned. Fans of everyone from Slowdive’s 2017 self-titled album to ‘90s-era Tom Petty (both major influences on this record) will likely find something to enjoy.
But how did Ross feel about the advance praise for A BILLION LITTLE LIGHTS, which was loftily perched on quite a few “most anticipated album” lists prior to its release? “I don’t feel any pressure. I kind of go into an album rollout… I try not to get hopes up too much that it’s going to be received well,” Ross said. “Whenever it happens, it’s just really, really exciting.” The praise is, of course, very well-deserved. Highlights include “The Shining But Tropical,” which nods to the bizarre, Kubrick-esque setting Ross found when he visited his grandfather’s Florida retirement home. The fact that the song sets churning drums and shimmering guitar work in a song with such a title is pretty fitting.
From the very start of opener “The Wind Was Like A Train” the album sounds immense and propulsive, a natural leap forward for the band that reflects its newfound supporting cast in the studio (and, one would imagine, on stage some day). “Amalfi” channels the hazy shimmer of Slowdive, “You Can Have It Back” is a jaunty strummer of a tune, and “Die Outside” is all twangy guitar, while “Family Friends” blends delicate instrumentation with powerful drums.
“I always felt like something was missing from those first two records,” Ross said. Those gaps (if any) have been filled in, and then some. Throughout, lyrical inspiration takes heavy cues from nature, making that cornfield setting for the KEXP At Home show all the more fitting. “The older I’ve gotten, I’ve just found way more inspiration from just being more in nature,” Ross, who recently relocated upstate from New York City, said. “I think it’s probably from spending so much time in a synthetic environment.”
A BILLION LITTLE LIGHTS is well-suited for quiet reflection, as immense as it sounds at times. But what’s a momentous album without the experience of seeing it live? For starters, it’s an energy that Ross sorely misses. “Going on tour just to support the record is so important,” Ross said. “(We’ve) never really done so many virtual, remote performances before. It’s pretty much been a virtual Internet experience so far. We’re so ready for (touring) to come back.” Wild Pink is set to play Treefort Fest this year out in Idaho and, although Ross can’t divulge too many details at the moment, he confirmed the band will play other live shows this year.
Ross has also spent some time in the intervening months dreaming up concerts of his own. If he could tour with anyone, Ross would love to see Wild Pink open for Waxahatchee or Bartees Strange. And with a record like A BILLION LITTLE LIGHTS guiding the way forward, there’s no telling what could happen next. For now, Ross knows what he wants to do: “I’m hoping to just keep going on that path. I’m definitely just hoping to keep doing this. I don’t have any hard concrete plans (but) I want to make a new record as soon as possible.”
For a band that shows no signs of letting up, again, this is great news. Keep your ear to the ground.